Academia, bureaucracy, and the erosion of trust

My first job Monday morning was attending a meeting with University Administrators, reviewing the progress of the School of Physics in preparing its submission to the Research Assessment Exercise. As these things go it wasn’t too bad – everybody was positive, organised, not too petty – but this kind of work isn’t exactly what I dreamed I would be doing when I started my PhD two thousand years ago, rolling up my sleeves, ready to push back the Frontiers of Knowledge.

Young scientists love to whinge about the activity they call “admin” in a blurry kind of way, ignoring the crucial distinctions we senior academics make between management, politics, and true administration. Its hard not to think of that episode of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – the one where the people of a dying planet plan to send three Arks out into space. The A-Ark has the creative types – leaders, poets, scientists, sportsman etc. The C-Ark has the workers – bricklayers, farmers, etc. The B-Ark carries all the middlemen, administrators, telephone sanitation engineers and so on. It turns out that Arks A and C were never launched and it was all a cunning ruse to get rid of the useless bits of society.

Academics are of course often naive – in understanding how much work running things actually takes, and in expecting money for nothing. But there are two real and serious problems : the erosion of trust, and frictional cost.

Aeons ago, academia was of little import and received little money. Now we get loads of public money. Quite right too; we educate half the population, discover cures for disease, travel to Jupiter, invent the web, and so on. We are a significant force in modern society. But you don’t get that kind of money without getting asked hard hard questions. And when you join the Firm you gotta toe the line, capisce ? Hands up all those astronomers who want complete academic freedom but no postdocs, no X-ray telescopes, and no conferences in Brazil. Pause. Thought so.

Asking hard questions is a good thing. But the growing tendency in public life is to want PROOF. Show us the papers, the citations, the gender statistics. Please establish a benchmark study and then maintain a basket of metrics. How can we pay overheads if you can’t prove what fraction of academic time goes on different categories of activity ? This course can’t be approved unless the Learning Objectives are in the correct format. Etc etc etc. Nobody knows when to stop and take a judgement call. The constant message is “we cannot trust you : we require proof”. Over time this inevitably erodes confidence and creativity, which is a bad thing for the Modern Economy.

As well as the psychological damage, the other danger is that the cost per unit achievement increases. Somebody has to work out how to channel money to the right bits of the machine, and we should be accountable. So inevitably administrators and managers poke and fiddle inside the machine. This adds internal friction. Without it, the machine could slither off in some random unwanted direction; but too much internal friction and we grind to a halt. So once again the problem is just knowing when to stop; each new bureaucratic demand is incrementally justified… Its one of those boiling the frog problems, folks.

The Principal of my University once asked me how one could improve staff morale. Simple, I said. Send an all-staff email saying “from now on, you no longer need to do X”. He asked me to instantiate X. I had several suggestions, but apparently they were all either politically unwise or not compliant with emerging legislation…

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One Response to Academia, bureaucracy, and the erosion of trust

  1. Stephen says:

    You haven’t seen bureaucracy until you’ve worked for large corporations. My personal productivity has been 30x better. No wonder they outsource.

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